Mondo Marvel #4 - September 1962A column article, Mondo Marvel by: Paul Brian McCoy
Welcome back, True Believers! It is I, Paul Brian McCoy, and I bring you Marvel Comics' September, 1962 slate of comics. It's a bit of a mixed bag this week, as The Fantastic Four hits a six-month peak, but both The Incredible Hulk and Thor's adventures in Journey Into Mystery stumble. We are also (re)introduced to Marvel's newest superhero, Ant-Man!
Yes, a man who can shrink to the size of an ant, tell other ants what to do, all the while, maintaining the strength of One Human. Amazing! Or should I say, Astonishing, as he takes over the lead spot in Tales to Astonish? Henry Pym is an interesting character who actually debuted a few months earlier in Tales to Astonish, not as a superhero, but as a scientist who's shrinking potion invention almost kills him, inspiring him to swear never to use it again.
That didn't last long, did it?
More on that later. For now, lets get to this week's adventures, shall we? As a reminder for new readers, what I'm trying to do here is look at the development of the Marvel Universe as it happened, on a month-to-month basis, reading and reviewing all of their Superhero titles in the 60s. I'm doing my best not to let what I already know about Marvel Comics inform my reactions too much, plus I'm reading a lot of these stories for the first time.
I want to try to experience the creation of the Marvel Universe as it was built, and, hopefully, discover some insight into how and why the MU is the place it is today. We've already seen that right from the start, Marvel Earth is a paranoid and dangerous place. The first super being in this world, Namor, the Sub-Mariner, debuted by attacking New York and declaring war on humanity before eventually siding with the U.S. against the Nazis in WWII. He disappeared sometime after the war, only to reappear in 1963 and again take up his hostilities with humankind. Add to that the fact that at least two of our newly created Superheroes are rampaging monsters with anger-control issues.
Atomic power and weapons are used casually and with so little regard for the results, I'm surprised everyone doesn't glow in the dark. Giant monsters, while not generally believed in, are actually real and occasionally attack large metropolitan areas. The Communist threat helps to keep the level of tension and anxiety fairly high, and when the Commies aren't threatening to undermine the American government, strange Aliens from Outer Space are continuously trying to invade and conquer the entire planet. In six months of comics we've already had three invasion attempts!
The Marvel Universe is a messed-up, uncomfortable, and nerve-wracking place to live. And so far, the only really consistent defense against all of these threats is a group of four celebrity freaks who live in New York and seem to be more lucky than actually talented, when it comes to protecting the planet, as we see yet again with this month's installment of "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine."
Fantastic Four #6
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
"The Captives of the Deadly Duo!"
Lee and Kirby up the ante once more, building on the previous two issues, the best so far, and tops them both. How, you ask? Did you not see that cover? Doctor Doom and Namor, The Sub-Mariner team up to defeat the FF! Who wouldn't snatch that book off the shelves?
I've been a trifle remiss in not talking up Kirby's art in the last couple of columns. The first issue or two of Fantastic Four were okay, but didn't seem to be getting Kirby's full attention. However, with the last couple of issues, Fantastic Four has become a joy to look at. Issue 6 really drives this home. From the detailed variation of the New Yorkers in the crowd scenes and the realistic New York City backgrounds, to the undersea creatures that swim around and interact with Namor, Kirby is bringing his A-Game this book and making it look like "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine" for sure.
And the story is one of the best so far for a few reasons, particularly the use of Namor, but more on that in a minute. First, the opening scenes establish direct continuity from the previous issue, as Johnny has been out searching for signs of Doctor Doom, but to no avail. When he gets back to the Baxter Building, Lee gives us a glimpse into the everyday lives of the FF, emphasizing the celebrity aspect that really makes this comic stand out from the pack.
During the course of reading their fan mail (and hate mail), Reed visits a sick boy at a hospital conveniently located right across the street from their headquarters, and Ben gets a comically threatening message from The Yancey Street Gang, calling him out for a rumble. Reed also reveals the secret of his stretching clothes: "chemical fibers containing unstable molecules that shift in structure" when he stretches. We can assume that this explains Sue and Johnny's costumes as well.
When it comes to the pseudo-science in my science fiction, I appreciate the attempt to at least try to provide explanations, and this one works for me. I can't help but imagine this being included as response to the fan letters that Lee was receiving, which makes for yet another interesting blending of the real world and the Marvel Universe, although in a less invasive manner than last issue's Incredible Hulk comic.
The best part of this opening section of the story is what comes next, though. Not only do we get the FF hanging out in their spare time, we then get a glimpse of what Namor does for fun, and it's not what I would have expected. He frolics with dolphins!
Yeah. Dolphins. He's not so tough.
He's also been spending his time redecorating his undersea house, setting up a nicely furnished, water-free room where he can receive air-breathing visitors like, wait for it, Doctor Doom! Really, its a pretty nice room, although that chair doesn't look too comfortable. The real question, of course, is where did he get that black & white glossy of Sue Storm? Does the FF Fan Club offer those?
More interestingly, Sue has a black & white glossy of Namor hidden behind the books on her bookshelf! Where the hell did she get that? But who can blame her, really? Reed's an emotionally distant nerd who fails at anything action-oriented and Namor's dangerous and troubled. Plus you can probably see everything Namor's packing in that speedo. As far as costumes go, Sub-Mariner's pretty much invites second glances and dreamy stares.
Anyway, Doom guilts Namor into teaming up, but once Namor has done his part, Doom predictably double-crosses him and, in a theme that should come as not real surprise, the FF are useless when it comes time to actually stop Doom's plan. If Namor hadn't been there, the FF would have been killed for sure this time and that's that.
This issue is really more like the Namor Show, since he's the character that gets the most face time, we see him both at rest and in action, he's sympathetic and heroic, and ultimately he's able to seemingly finish Doom off for good.
Yeah, I know. He'll be back, but at this stage in the game of a developing Marvel Universe, it looks like he's gone for good.
So this issue not only gives us some technical insight into the world of the FF, and helps to build the impression of the team as New York celebrities, but it gives us a truly multi-dimensional anti-hero with Namor, who also doubles as a love-interest for Sue, hopefully shaking up Reed's world a little. That's pretty good for one issue. It also serves as a very strong capstone to the first six months of Fantastic Four comics.
But will the months ahead be able to maintain this momentum? We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
"Banished to Outer Space!"
"Trapped By The Ringmaster!"
We get two stories of the Incredible Hulk this month, neither one all that great, but a new status quo is established. Just as I feared, the evil Hulk of the past two issues is done away with this time around, and to be perfectly honest, I don't care for it. One major problem being that Banner is completely out of the picture this issue.
But what happened, you ask? Okay. It's like this. General "Thunderbolt" Ross tricks Rick Jones into leading the Hulk into a trap. So far, so good, really. The Hulk breaks out of the underground/water cave Lee and Kirby established last issue as where Banner goes at night to keep his nocturnal transformations under a semblance of control. One look at Rick and he flies into a murderous rage. However, for some reason, he's not as articulate as he has been and tends to lumber rather than aggressively stalk like he has for two issues.
Seriously. He's so slow that Rick barely has to run to keep ahead of him. Along with this and his lack of vocabulary, Kirby makes a clear visual reference to Boris Karloff's turn as Frankenstein that seems to be indicating the way they plan on taking the character. Looks like we're going to be getting the misunderstood monster who's trying to do good as the months progress.
Anyway, the trap is a one-way rocket trip into space. Rick doesn't know this, however. Ross appeals to Jones' patriotism in yet another moment in this title where the "good guys" are actually bastards. Yeah, the Hulk is a murderous, rampaging monster who would conquer the planet on a whim if he had the technology (as we saw last issue), but the Army is led by liars who don't hesitate to manipulate citizens with patriotic sentiment in order to get them to do their will.
In the world of The Incredible Hulk nobody can be trusted; not even the U.S. This is an interesting contrast to the themes of this month's Thor adventure, which we'll discuss shortly. It's one of the things that has really helped make The Incredible Hulk stand out. Unfortunately, this issue brings a pretty dramatic change to the Hulk's character.
While in space, and exposed to sunlight, the Hulk changes back into Banner and is then exposed to what appears to be the same cosmic radiation that transformed four other space travelers into colorful characters with Fantastic abilities beyond those of normal human beings. At the same time, in a coincidence of monumental stupidity, Rick overhears General Ross bragging about his true plans, and is able to hit a switch that somehow ejects Banner's space capsule, which then plummets back to earth with no one but Rick aware of its happening.
Also, hitting the switch caused some sort of electrical/radioactive discharge between Rick and Banner/Hulk, creating a mysterious link between the two. A link that makes the Hulk Rick's mindless slave. Yup. That's right. One of the most interesting and innovative characters in the newly formed Marvel Universe is now essentially a mindless robot for Good. Until Rick falls asleep anyway. Then Hulk just starts rampaging, still mindlessly, until Rick can show up to order him to stop.
Then a new power is also revealed. The Hulk can now fly. How? Why? No explanation. No reason. It's just convenient. While I can appreciate the need that Lee must feel to figure out a way to get the Hulk out of the tight spots that lurking off into the darkness isn't a solution for, I don't really care for this new addition. It's a bit too traditional and easy, lacking even the cursory nod to pseudo-scientific explanation that I mentioned earlier in Fantastic Four.
Sure, the narration calls it a jump, but he's clearly changing course and flying later on. I just don't see the need for this new power.
It is encouraging, I suppose, that now we have a story about a rebellious teenager who controls what is essentially a weapon of mass destruction, and Rick's struggles to keep from falling asleep are an interesting way of ratcheting up the tension, but it feels as though Lee and Kirby are sacrificing strong, original story elements in order to make the comic more acceptable to younger readers.
I know it's a business, and they have a responsibility to try to make money, but I'm one reader who's very disappointed by this new turn of events.
The second story this month is fairly forgettable. The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime are cruising through towns, hypnotizing the residents, and burgling everything and everyone. Rick discovers that even while hypnotized (because what teen doesn't love going to the circus while their being hunted by the Army and hiding out with their giant green monster friend, right?) he can control the Hulk with his mind.
Yes, the Hulk is now a mind-reading, flying robot that fights crime.
I won't even dwell upon the silliness of Rick Jones being able to replace, on his own and in secret, the giant rod that holds the Hulk's cave door closed after the Hulk shattered it at the beginning of the issue. This title has flown off the rails at an alarming rate. In the span of one issue it went from being the most potentially daring and intriguing (if not the most successfully executed) comic that Marvel publishes, to kind of a joke.
I am not impressed.
And I forgot to mention last time that for some reason not addressed or mentioned by any of the characters, the Hulk is now green instead of gray. What's up with that? Conscious decision or printing error? Let me know the story over at the message boards, people! It's not like I have Internet access or anything.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
"The Mighty Thor vs. The Executioner!"
Well, with the second Thor adventure, Lee falls back on the Marvel Universe's statistically second largest threat: Communism. Yes, that's right. The Norse God of Thunder, after repelling an alien invasion in his first outing, this time around takes on a Communist would-be Dictator called "The Executioner," you know, "because of all the victims he's sent to the firing squad." And damned if Kirby doesn't make him a grotesque, low-browed, flat-nosed, brute, too.
There's really not much to say about this story. Dr. Don Blake, Thor's alter-ego, volunteers to do some free doctoring in the war torn South American country San Diablo. With a name like San Diablo, how could there be anything but civil war and unrest? Anyway, things slide quickly into the crapper and it's up to Thor to take down the dirty Commies.
Only technically, he just disrupts them. Lee leaves it for The Executioner's Commie henchmen to actually enact justice on him, gunning him down as he attempts to flee with, and I'm not kidding, a suitcase bursting at the seams with cash and three large sacks with dollar signs printed on them. Yes, he was betraying his men and stealing their gold the same way Yosemite Sam might.
As he's SHOT DEAD by his own soldiers, one of them exclaims, "It is the Americans who are truly our friends...Not those who would plunge us into war!"
Viva America! Is Marvel getting nervous about their representation of the U.S. Military over in The Incredible Hulk and trying to balance out the jingoism scale? Talk about ham-handed.
I'm also not sure about the visual choice to show us Thor's actions from, apparently, his point of view for the last two pages of the story. Aside from an initial full body shot, we then get four panels of just Thor's arms as he uses his hammer to fight Commies. Odd.
Anyway, reinforcing the traditional Super Hero tropes I mentioned with last month's issue, Dr. Blake has a crush on his pretty nurse, but lacks the confidence to tell her how he feels because, yes, he is "a lame man." He's also afraid that if he told her how he felt, she'd quit and he'd never see her again. Nurse Jane (who doesn't get a last name this issue) would actually reciprocate his feelings if only he weren't "too darn stuffy to ever be romantic."
Ah, love. This really is the Marvel comic most clearly geared toward traditional comic reading kids, and it doesn't carry it well.
Of course, once Thor shows up, Jane only has eyes for him. He's "so handsome" and "so strong -- so masculine -- so wonderful!" The story ends with Blake and Jane both standing in the darkness as she wishes he could be as "brave and adventurous" as Thor. It's a bit disappointing to see the same kind of Superman/Lois Lane relationship developing in this title.
There are practically no references to anything mythological, although there is an interesting moment when Dr. Blake is able to summon a storm without actually transforming into Thor. His personality seems to slip into Thor's as well when this happens. I don't know if that's intentional and will be developed later, but it's the most interesting element of this issue.
With both Aliens and Commies out of the way, hopefully Thor's adventures in Journey Into Mystery will start to pick up steam next issue.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
"Return of The Ant-Man!"
Okay, so right off the bat, we've got a title declaring the "Return of The Ant-Man!" Which means he's been around before, right? Not like Namor, though. The return in this issue is referring to issue #27 of Tales to Astonish, published back in January of 1962 - the same month as Fantastic Four #2.
Back then, Henry Pym was a scientist, just this side of the mad scientist stereotype, actually. His colleagues in the scientific community considered him something of a joke, but he scoffed at their derision and promised to only work on scientific projects that appealed to his imagination. In this case, it turned out to be a shrinking serum.
After testing it out on random objects around the lab, Pym then dosed himself with the serum and immediately shrank to the size of an ant. He ends up outdoors and is chased by a pack (a gaggle, a murder, a flock, ???) of ants into their anthill, where he assumes he'll be able to hide and escape later. Instead, he falls into the ants' supply of honey (???) but is rescued by a friendly ant. After using judo to wrestle his way out of the jaws of another, more ferocious ant, Pym makes his way back to his lab, and with the help of the friendly ant, gets back inside to dip himself in the growing serum.
Once human-sized again, Pym pours the serum down the drain and swears to never use his formula again.
It's a silly, forgettable story, but it establishes two things: Pym knows Judo, and ants collect honey. The first I'm okay with, but what the hell is up with the honey?
Anyway, half a year later, Lee and Kirby are looking to expand the Marvel superhero population again, and apparently someone thought that the ant-sized guy from that short story the did months prior, would be a good place to go for their next hero. I'm not sure I agree, and the rest of this issue's adventure doesn't really fill me with hope for the future of the character.
In brief, Pym is working on an anti-radiation gas for the US Government when, surprise!, Commies break into the lab and demand the formula. Pym heroically refuses and while the lab techs are tied up and apparently "interrogated" (hopefully without "enhanced techniques") he breaks out a strange costume and helmet that he's been working on to communicate with ants and protect him from stray bites.
This story really seems to only be intended to establish the basics of the character. The costume is made of steel mesh consisting of unstable molecules (just like the FF's costumes, without the steel mesh, that is), and the Cybernetic Helmet sends out, and translates, the electronic impulses that ants use to communicate.
Just go with it, okay?
Pym makes a new discovery this time around, one that would have helped him out quite a bit the last time he was attacked by ants. He maintains the strength of a "full-grown man!" Not the proportionate strength of an ant, which, as with Spider-Man last month, would make him super-strong, but just the strength of one regular man. And not even a healthy, athletic man. He's just as strong as he normally is, however strong a brainiac, socially awkward scientist is.
The rest of the story is just Pym sending his ant army to attack the Commies, biting and stinging them while other ants plug up their guns with honey.
Again with the honey. Does Lee know something about ants that I'm missing?
Anyway, Pym unties his lab assistants and since the Commies' guns don't work, the techies can easily overpower them. Because, of course, Communists are cowardly weaklings without their weapons and trickery to help them.
And that's it. Pym sneaks back into his office and no one ever noticed that a tiny man was helping them out of a tight spot. It's not the greatest introduction of a character we've seen yet, but, um, er, yeah. It's definitely an introduction?
This is the first month that it has really seemed like Lee is stretching himself a bit thin. Even with his brother Larry Lieber scripting both the Thor and Ant-Man adventures, things are starting to get a little cliche and silly. I mean, Ant-Man? Really? What happened to Spider-Man? What's the hold up with his comic?
And could we take a break from all the anti-Communist rhetoric? Sure, its 1962 and the Red Scare is in full effect, but does it need to be shoved into the forefront of what are ostensibly stories for kids? I suppose it adds a level of verisimilitude, but it's already getting old. I can only assume that keeping all the other titles going that Marvel publishes is the source of the strain.
In addition to the Superhero comics, Marvel is also publishing four Western titles, seven romance titles, and two more science fiction anthologies in addition to Journey Into Mystery and Tales to Astonish, most of which Stan Lee was writing or plotting. I suppose that's impressive enough, but I'd really prefer to see some more focused attention on the Marvel Universe proper.
Maybe next time.
Until then, keep reading and stop by the message boards to let me know what I missed and what you found the most exciting/interesting/ridiculous about the Marvel Comics of September, 1962.